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Workforce Readiness

Now Is the Time to Better Support Adult Learners in Higher Education

Institutions that invest in Prior Learning Assessment can boost degree completion rates, help prepare students for the workforce and narrow the educational equity gap.

student working with laptop at home

The economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has left workers and policymakers alike wondering what can be done, not only to stem the bleeding, but to accelerate our road to recovery. Government organizations and higher education institutions are implementing a variety of relief policies aimed at assisting the unemployed in finding the skills to return to the labor force, from local community college scholarships to free online skills training. However, one of the best opportunities for working adults to reskill, retrain, and reenter the workforce has been overlooked: the Prior Learning Assessment (PLA).

PLAs are tests that award college credit for an adult student's work and life experiences — essentially a work-based analog of the high school advanced placement test. They turn applicable knowledge gained outside of the classroom into significant time and money savings. In fact, a recent Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) study concluded that students who use PLAs save, on average, 9-14 months of time and between $1,500 and $10,200 in the pursuit of their degrees. Further, PLAs led to far higher degree completion rates for Latino and Black students and Pell Grant recipients.

Despite these advantages, PLAs remain significantly underutilized. The CAEL study, which factored in the data of 72 schools from across the country, highlighted an unfortunate reality: Currently, only about one in 10 adult learners have made use of PLAs. Despite the significant advantages PLAs offer underrepresented demographics, they are used the least by Black students and Pell Grant recipients. This is clearly an opportunity for America's higher education system to better serve adult learners.

Based on my experience with University of Phoenix, CAEL's study rings true. Our students, most of whom are working adults, make it a priority to save money and time while they get their degree and are not as concerned with having a "traditional" college experience. They are working parents (more than half have dependents) who want the flexibility to balance their pursuit of higher education with family and work. They have a wealth of on-the-job experience, making them the perfect candidates for turning PLA exams into college credits. The question now is how to extend the benefits of PLAs to more students at more institutions.

Higher education has an obligation to better serve adult learners, who make up more than a third of today's college students — CAEL's study offers a roadmap to making this goal a reality. The researchers concluded that PLA programs need to be more robust; schools, along with government officials, national associations and thought leaders, need to invest in the necessary tools and resources to help students fully understand PLAs and their benefits. Investing in more effective education about PLAs and ensuring that each and every adult student understands the range of experiences that can apply to a PLA are in schools' best interests. They can even go a step further, lowering the cost of PLA exams for adult learners. If PLAs were available at little or no cost, it could go a long way toward improving access and removing financial barriers to higher education — a tremendous boon for low-income students.

At a time when many institutions are reexamining how they can equitably support all students — regardless of socioeconomic bracket or demographic — PLAs are an incredible tool. CAEL's study clearly demonstrates that PLAs can help close equity gaps in educational attainment. It can be a major boost for many adult learners, helping them finish their degree in a shorter amount of time and at a lower cost. Higher completion rates among Black and Latino adults help institutions looking to improve graduation rates, but even more importantly, they translate to higher lifelong earnings and represent a meaningful step toward closing the economic inequality gap.

If PLAs are not adequately supported, the students who have the most to gain will miss out. To that end, institutions should look beyond academia and build alliances with employers. By aligning more closely with employers on PLA opportunities, schools can create strategic training opportunities for employees that can tie more directly into degree and credential programs. Employers can also benefit from helping to make it easier for their employees to upskill or reskill by pursuing new credentials or degrees in less time and at lower cost.

As higher education continues to grapple with its role in society and how to better support students in overcoming systemic obstacles, greater investment in PLAs is an easy first step. The infrastructure is already in place — these tools just need to be better promoted and more widely discussed. As every school looks to help their country through this crisis, PLAs could promote educational equity for all students and help get Americans back on their feet.

About the Author

John Woods is chief academic officer and provost at the University of Phoenix.

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